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Microsoft will phase out a slew of products as of December 15, citing its 2001 legal settlement with Sun Microsystems over Java as the impetus.

Among the products that Microsoft will no longer make available to customers through any of the Microsoft’s sales channels are Windows 98, SQL Server 7 and a number of versions of Office 2000, according to a note from a Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN) program manager posted to a public Microsoft newsgroup. It also appears some versions of NT 4.0 are also due to be phased out, but as the note is ambiguous on this point, it’s impossible to tell which ones.

The December 4 note, which is featured on the MSDN Public Newsgroup, was signed by Andy Boyd, MSDN Subscriber Downloads program manager.

Due to a settlement agreement reached in January 2001, the following products are being phased out and will no longer available to customers through MSDN Subscriber Downloads or other channels at Microsoft,” according to Boyd’s note. “These products will be removed from MSDN Subscriber Downloads as of December 15th, 2003.”

Earlier this summer, both Microsoft and Sun declared wins in their long-standing antitrust battle over the Java Virtual Machine. To read that story and analysis, click here.

The products targeted for phase-out are those that embed Microsoft’s Java Virtual Machine technology.

Other products on the Dec. 15 phase-out list include: Office XP Developer and Office 2000 Developer editions; Office 20000 Premium Service Release 1; BackOffice Server 2000; Internet Security and Acceleration Server (ISA) 2000; Internet Explorer 5.5; and Visual Studio 6 Microsoft Developer Edition.

One developer, who requested anonymity, noted that a number of products on the due-to-be-phased-out list are key for many companies.

There are a “lot of important Microsoft items on that list that [we] developers use all the time [SQL 7] or for backward compatibility [Windows 98],” the developer said.

What’s behind the phase out? Sun Microsystems Inc., the creator of Java, sued Microsoft in 1997 for what Sun claimed was Microsoft’s improper use of Sun’s Java technology. Sun and Microsoft agreed to settle the suit in January 2001. Microsoft paid Sun $20 million and the two agreed to a plan for Microsoft to phase out products that included the older version of Microsoft Java that allegedly infringed on Sun’s Java copyrights and trademarks.

In his newsgroup posting, Boyd explained that a handful of flagship products will be spared from the phase out, including Office XP Professional with FrontPage; some unidentified versions of Windows NT 4.0 and Small Business Server 2000. These won’t be phased out because Microsoft is planning to update them with “Java-compliant versions” of its virtual machine technology before Dec. 31, according to Boyd.

Next page: Timing bothers some observers, such as Sun.

To some, the timing of Microsoft’s decision to phase out these products is a bit confusing. After all, earlier this fall, Sun and Microsoft agreed to extend the time period under which Microsoft is allowed to use Sun’s Java source and compatibility test suites. The two agreed to allow Microsoft to support the Microsoft Java Virtual Machine (MSJVM) until Sept. 30, 2004 “to permit a smooth transition from the MSJVM.”

Microsoft execs said today that the company is simply clearing the channel now, in anticipation of the Sept. 30, 2004, cut-off date.

Developer Division Tony Goodhew said Microsoft has been communicating its Java phase-out strategy for about 18 months.

“As part of our settlement and license extension with Sun we can only modify the Microsoft virtual machine (VM) until Sep 30, 2004. After that date, we will not be able to modify the VM for any reason, including security,” Goodhew said. “We will not ship products that include a piece of software we can not provide security fixes for, thus we are phasing out some older products and re-releasing some older products without the VM. This applies to all channels.”

Some industry watchers agreed that the move was not unexpected.

“Most shops stopped using Java on the client (through browsers, at least) long ago, not only because of issues like the above, but because of the general pain of having to debug across multiple browser and JVM versions. So there’s no impact there,” said Michael Gilpin, research director with market researcher Forrester Research.

“The people who are already using the applications like SQL Server 7 won’t have to stop using them just because you can’t download it from MSDN any more. What folks generally want to download from MSDN is newer versions, anyway, except in situations where a corporate standard has been defined on an older version, and a new employee needs to get it. So it’s theoretically possible that some people in that situation might be inconvenienced by this, but that will neither hurt nor help Microsoft nor Sun at this point. It’s just getting into compliance with the settlement agreement,” Gilpin added.

But some, including Sun officials, wondered whether Microsoft’s announcement of a phase-out was a not-so-subtle attempt to force customers to upgrade to newer versions of Microsoft’s operating system, Office suite, database and other products.

Sun recently released its Java Desktop System as a replacement for Microsoft Office. eWEEK Labs took a look at the product and liked what it saw.

“It seems to me that they [Microsoft] would be keen to use any excuse to get customers to ‘upgrade,’ spend more money and get more locked in to things like Office 2003’s DRM [digital rights management],” said Simon Phipps, Sun’s chief technology evangelist. “Fortunately all those customers now have another option. With the release of Sun Java Desktop System they don’t have to buy new hardware so they can pay the ‘Redmond Tax’—they can use the existing hardware for Java Desktop. If it runs any of those operating systems it will run Java Desktop perfectly.”